Articulating the Scientist as a Distributed-Centered Subject – Interview with Hélène Mialet*
“…a mediation adds something; it modifies, it stops, it does things, and it makes us do things. That’s what nonhumans are doing, and this is why they are actors, but in my case, I am also interested in what human beings are doing when we take into account the role of the non-humans. In other words, I am trying to recuperate in this complex network composed of different elements the specificity of the human actor, of one human actor in particular, without essentializing him or her.”
Interview by Aybike Alkan
*IstanbuLab Feminist Technoscience Interview Series (III)
We continue our feminist technoscience interview series with Hélène Mialet from Science and Technology Studies Department of York University, Toronto. The interview you are about to read is based on Mialet’s second book, Hawking Incorporated, published in 2012, where she makes important contributions to STS scholarship by presenting a strong and illustrative case for the social nature of scientific practice. In Hawking Incorporated, Mialet depicts the scientist as a collective rather than an individual or a pure mind. Her arguments are based on her in depth ethnographic study of a knowing subject, the well-known and acclaimed theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, although she is cautious about not to present this study as a biography of Hawking. Accordingly, she underlines that the book is a work of empirical philosophy that will allow us to demystify science and the “scientist as a lone genius”.
In this regard, along with the book, we witness a tension between collectivity and individual. Mialet shows how HAWKING is made by a collectivity and in each chapter, she discusses a different part of this collectivity such as Hawking’s computer (Chapter 1), students (Chapter 2), diagrams (Chapter 3), media (Chapter 4), ethnographer (Chapter 5), archives (Chapter 6), and his statue (Chapter 7). She introduces a new concept, distributed-centered subject, to relieve this tension. In this interview, Mialet unpacks this concept and elaborates on how it speaks to the previous literature in STS, especially Actor-Network Theory and on the kind of possibilities that the concept opens up to look at taken-for-granted assumptions with different eyes.
Hi Hélène, my first question is about the theories and methodologies of STS. Regarding Actor-Network Theory (ANT), we call it “theory” but it has important methodological implications as you have shown in your book, Hawking Incorporated. Can you talk about your understanding of ANT and how you use it methodologically in your study?
Those who created ANT say that it is not a theory; it is an infra-theory. The idea is to follow the actors and try to understand how they do what they do. So, ANT created a vocabulary, but in a way, I think one could use or create another kind of vocabulary, which I have tried to do with my own work because this infra-theory is extremely fluid and gives you a lot of flexibility as an analyst. To apply a theory is completely against the idea of ANT. As a social scientist, I am not applying a theory nor am I applying a certain conception of how society functions. I am just following how actors talk about what they do, how they do what they do, and from there, I try to analyze my data to see the themes I am going to work with emerge. But I am following the actors into their own world. I am not trying to apply a toolbox, or in terms of methodology, a theory of the social, for example. Because again, actors are creating their own conception of the social, that’s what I am interested in. I add another definition to what they do.
Regarding the agency of nonhumans, Michel Callon points to a distinction between intermediaries and mediators. He tells that a mediator is more than what an intermediary is; it is more than the sum of its parts, it adds something to the way that things work. And in your study, I think you successfully show how a nonhuman can be a mediator. Can you talk about how you approach the question of agency in nonhumans?
A mediator becomes an intermediary when it becomes transparent, when it is stabilized or becomes a black box. My book shows the complexity and the heterogeneity of all the mediations that make an individual an individual. In this sense, I make visible what we normally don’t see, all the mediations that Hawking is dealing with and which makes him who he is, mediations that are there in his case, even if we don’t see them, but also that are there for all of us. In this sense, he becomes a window or a magnifying glass. And indeed, a mediation adds something; it modifies, it stops, it does things, and it makes us do things. That’s what nonhumans are doing, and this is why they are actors, but in my case, I am also interested in what human beings are doing when we take into account the role of the non-humans. In other words, I am trying to recuperate in this complex network composed of different elements the specificity of the human actor, of one human actor in particular, without essentializing him or her.
Maybe this is why your book made me think that whereas ANT puts effort to bring the nonhuman into social scientific research, you bring the human back into ANT.
Yes, because the move I am trying to make is a kind of post-ANT in a way as well. When you have reintegrated the role of nonhumans, when you have redistributed all the competencies in these networks, or collectives, or extended bodies as I call them, (which I have done by taking as an object of research an individual) the question becomes how we can rethink the role, the status, and the definition of the human who is part of, or who emerges from, these networks. How does Hawking, in particular, delegate all the competencies in this network? Where is he in these collectives?
This year, I will be at the Berggruen Institute to work on the theme of the transformation of the human and I will pursue my questions about subjectivity, cognition, the role and the status of the human, but also work on new themes such as volition, senses, affect and sensations through the lens of my new project. I started developing this problematic around subjectivity and personhood, in my first book, L’entreprise créatrice, which was an ethnographic study of innovation in a large corporation where I tried to understand how we can characterize a knowing subject in the making, in a particular setting. Then, I pursued this question with Hawking by adding other kinds of mediation, focusing especially on machines; and now I am pursuing it with a project on type-1 diabetes, which is about the management of the disease through complex networks, again made of machines, human beings, and animals as well because in the case of diabetes you have dogs that are trained to recognize hypoglycemia. So, I am trying to reintegrate different components in these collectives that constitute us. They constitute the diabetic person, but I think it is also a window into what we are all becoming as well—we are all attached to different networks and different collectives. The question is: ‘how are these collectives (and the fact of making them visible) redefining the human and our conception of what it is?’
In your book, you look at the individual as a collective and describe Hawking as a collective. You tell us the story of how Hawking’s identity is constructed at different places by different actors whether it be students, assistants, journalists, or his computer, or his statue. Considering this multiplicity and the complexity it brings, how and where do you think the singularity appears? Can you explain the concept of the “distributed-centered subject”?
I came up with the notion of the distributed-centered subject because I wanted to understand, to work with, and to think through this notion of distribution, or of the delegation of competencies, or translation, on one side, and on the other, I was curious to understand if certain things were not distributable. I chose Hawking as a case study precisely because he represented in our collective imagination exactly the opposite of this notion of distribution. Because of his disability, we thought that everything was in his mind. Contrary to this conception, I showed that everything “he did” had to be delegated to machines and human beings around him. He was actually completely distributed, his intelligence was distributed, his identity and even his own body were distributed. So, the point of my book is to show the work of distribution, but also it is to show how—through the distribution of all his competencies—I could see certain resistances emerge in these networks and in these collectives; it is through these forms of resistance that I saw his singularity appear.
The singularity appears at different moments in my story and in different ways. For example, when the collective wants to change Hawking’s voice or his software, he resists. He resists being rewritten in the press; people are trying constantly to rewrite what he is saying but he resists that. His singularity appears, then, in these forms of resistance, but also in his will to construct himself at the center of these networks. In my book, I am trying to show, to recuperate, a form of singularity that has been lost in ANT. And I’m trying to pursue this question of the human, to rethink the concept of the subject in a different way, as a collective but also as a form of singularity. I called him a distributed-centered subject because it was a way of showing that the more he was distributed, the more he was centered in this network. It is a paradox that is interesting to work with.
You describe Hawking as a distributed-centered subject but, in the conclusion part, you also say he is a cyborg. How do you distinguish the distributed-centered subject from the cyborg?
I think it is what is complicated in the book and it is something I am still working on. I don’t think I resolved the problem. I open the possibility of doing more fieldwork and I’m trying to see how I could push certain ideas I developed in my work. What I show, at the same time, is what an actor-network is, in other words, when we think about an actor-network, we think about it as something very abstract, as a concept developed by social theorists. I show in practice what it is, through description, through my ethnographical work. I tried to avoid the concept of network because I wanted to distinguish myself from actor-network theory. So, I talk a lot about collectives and how these collectives are becoming collective bodies, an extension of the flesh and blood body through which a subject is constituted. On the one side, Hawking is an actor-network. If you want to understand what an actor-network is or looks like, you have to read 300 pages. On the other side, I am also showing how he is a distributed-centered subject. This is a way of, again, recuperating something that is lost in ANT to show where his singularity appears. I don’t think the notion of singularity or recuperating the specificity of the human is something important in the notion of the cyborg (we are still interested in this case in blurring the boundaries). Of course, there are a lot of similarities as well.
You describe Hawking as a manager and it seems that being a great scientist requires one to be a great manager as well. This is an argument that supports your main thesis which is about rejecting the dualism between mind and body. I mean the scientist is not the one with a great brain, but he is the one who succeeds to manage a collective, mediate the relations around her or him. Given that Hawking is just a case, even if it is a privileged one, is it a case for understanding how science works, or does your book tell something about how politics functions as well? What would be your potential arguments if you chose a politician to follow?
The idea, you are right, is to show that there is nothing specific about Hawking. He just makes visible what we normally don’t see and in part, he shows us how science functions. But the concept of the distributed-centered subject could be applied or used as a way to think about how individuals are constituted in other fields. So, it could be in politics, it could be in literature, it could be in art, it could be in industry… It gives you the possibility to rethink the model of the individual or the genius individual, which is extremely powerful in all these fields. It offers something different from the traditional models of the genius which is either “it comes from the mind of someone” or “it is a product of a structure” or “it is a product of a network”. And there are practical and theoretical consequences of thinking about the individual as a collective—as a distributed-centered subject—as I do.
Obviously, there will be a lot of different dimensions or variables that constitute the individual depending on the field, but I think it could work. I have a student who just finished his Ph.D. trying to use the notion of the distributed-centered subject with Lance Armstrong. This is a very interesting study because suddenly you see Lance Armstrong not just as an abled genius in sport, but again you see the complexity of the networks and the collectives around him and how they function to produce Lance Armstrong in the way we know him. Of course, there are very different variables in his case, but it is very interesting to see them at work. I’m also establishing certain links with the corporate world, the idea behind the title of my book, Hawking Incorporated, is to think about an individual as a corporation. What, for example, does it do to our conception of what an organization is, if we destabilize the dichotomies between individual and collective, individual and organization, individual and corporation, and look at how a collective is singularized and becomes an individual?
Let’s say your focus is on a corporation. Can you say that there would be many distributed-centered subjects in a corporation? I mean, how does this concept relate to the power one holds in her/his hands? You can’t say that every member in the corporation can be a distributed-centered subject?
Yes, or distributed and centered differently, right? The point of my book is that the one who is the most distributed is also the most centered and the most powerful, which is completely paradoxical because you think that the most powerful person is the one who has everything in his or her hands and in this context, it is the opposite, he is completely distributed, and because of that he is the one who is the most centered and the most powerful.
Another question about the political implications of your study: you are not only concerned about the common-sense superiority of the mind, the rational actor but also other hierarchies of power such as the one between the civilized and the savage. Can you explain how does your work relate those other kinds of hierarchies?
If you start rethinking the distinction between the mind and the body, you start blurring a lot of other boundaries which are based on this distinction. For example, the distinction between we “moderns” with our rational mind and the “savage” others, the bricoleurs; the distinction in our society between those who think theoretically that is “with their minds” and those who work with their hands or “bodies”; the distinction in our scientific laboratories between the geniuses and the assistants; the distinction between the humans and the non-humans. If you start thinking about who we are (we moderns), what I show again in my book, is that we are all, to one degree or another, distributed, embodied, and materialized; this destabilizes the kind of dichotomies upon which our scientific rationality is based and “the superiority” that is attached to it, that is, reason versus tacit knowledge and instinct, mind versus body, individual versus collective, leader versus subordinates, humans versus nonhumans.
Maybe that is why you touch upon a lot of research fields like body studies, cognition, the social construction of knowledge… Other than ANT, which other fields of study and scholars have been inspirational for you?
I have different sources of inspiration. I have been trained in the tradition of ANT and I used a lot of tools and ideas that come from ANT, but I also do a kind of bricolage, like every intellectual, or academic, and use different sources and resources. For example, I used distributed cognition, which is one of the theories developed by Edwin Hutchins in San Diego. I was also influenced by continental philosophy, which is my main training and by philosophers of science like François Dagognet, who I worked with. Obviously, I am trying to explore different theories, but I am also trying to build my own way of thinking as well as to develop tools and concepts that could be used by other researchers in Science Studies, or in other fields. Most of all, it’s all a work in progress, which is to say, my work is that of an empirical philosopher, much of my inspiration comes from the specificities of the fieldwork I’m dealing with.
Thank you for the answers, Hélène!